At surface level, Georgia’s game in Knoxville, Tenn., is not one to worry about. The Bulldogs survived a brutal early-season stretch that featured three games against Top 10 teams, and with a 3-1 overall record head coach Mark Richt’s squad is now ranked sixth in the nation.
On the other side of the field, the Tennessee Volunteers barely survived against South Alabama last weekend, needing an interception in the end zone with 1:41 left to play to preserve a 31-24 victory. Butch Jones has the Vols 3-2 in his first season with three wins against Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and the aforementioned South Alabama Jaguars and two losses to Oregon and Florida by a combined score of 90-31.
This is a Georgia program on the rise and a Tennessee team that is struggling to find direction. And that’s not a new trend. Since edging Georgia for the SEC East Championship in 2007, Tennessee has experienced five years of turmoil, three coaching changes and just two bowl game appearances. Meanwhile Georgia has managed to win two consecutive SEC East titles and seems destined for a third.
Perhaps the greatest divergence between the two schools is demonstrated by conference wins. From 2008-2012 Tennessee managed just 12 conference wins. Georgia won 27 SEC games over that same period.
But despite these differing trajectories, Georgia needs to take this Tennessee game seriously. Since 2007, Georgia has been ranked while taking on an unranked Tennessee team on three different occasions. Each of those games have been too close for comfort:
- 2007: No. 12 Georgia loses to unranked Tennessee in Knoxville by a score of 35-14.
- 2008: No. 10 Georgia survives (26-14) at home against unranked Tennessee.
- 2012: No. 5 Georgia defeats Tennessee by a score of 51-44 in Athens, Ga.
Recent history suggests that Tennessee is often better than its overall record. Six of the Vols’ seven losses last year came to teams who finished the season ranked in the BCS Top 25. More importantly, as the games above demonstrate, unranked Tennessee teams are always ready to upset Georgia.
The Bulldogs’ big win over LSU this past weekend makes the possibility of an upset all the more realistic. Georgia has struggled to follow signature wins with impressive performances in each of the last three seasons.
- In 2011, Georgia followed its best win of the year (a 45-7 win over No. 20 Auburn) with a sloppy 19-10 victory at home against Kentucky.
- Last year, Georgia’s dramatic victory over the Florida Gators was followed by an uninspiring first half against Ole Miss that saw the Bulldogs fall behind 10-0.
- Already this year, the Bulldogs followed a win over South Carolina with an off week and an undisciplined effort against North Texas. With 22 minutes left to play, the Dawgs were tied with the Mean Green at 21 points apiece.
Georgia has survived a brutal early-season gauntlet, but two wins against Top 10 teams can quickly be negated by a loss to upset-minded Tennessee this weekend. If Georgia wants to continue its march to the SEC Championship and beyond, the Dawgs must avoid a hangover against the Volunteers.
The first step to avoiding such a disastrous loss is awareness. Coaches and players need to be keenly aware of Tennessee’s tendency to play well against the red and black of Georgia. Furthermore, coaches need to rally players this week in practice and in the film room in an effort to ensure proper preparation.
Richt seemed all too aware of the pitfalls ahead when he told Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald, "If we think it's going to be any easier, we're crazy. We're going to Knoxville, Tenn., man. They're going to be fired up. Their fans are going to be ready to go."
If quarterback Aaron Murray and the Georgia offense can execute early, they’ll be able to quiet the hostile Neyland Stadium crowd and in doing so eliminate some pressure on the defense. The last thing Georgia needs is a Tennessee team that believes it can win and 102,000 orange-clad fans thinking along the same lines. A few early scores brought about by clean execution will take some of the spirit out of the crowd and the opposition.
Lastly, Georgia needs to rely on its depth. The one ingredient separating Tennessee from the rest of the SEC is elite depth. Georgia has an extra tier of talent and should utilize every eligible man in racing to a lead. Unlike last year, this Tennessee offense lacks firepower. A fast pace for Georgia on offense and a reliance on substitutes on defense could allow the Dawgs to wear out a depth-deprived Volunteer squad while still staying fresh.